So...what do you do if you are Christopher Nolan’s longtime cinematographer and you are looking to make your directorial debut?
Something like Transcendence.
Working from a script by another rookie, screenwriter Jack Paglen, first-time director Wally Pfister examines whether man could or should trust a machine – a computer – if said machine were to become sentient.
They say that we fear that which we don’t know...that which we do not understand. And they are right, for the most part.
In Transcendence that that is Johnny Depp’s Dr. Will Caster, or, actually, his mind, which his wants-to-change-the-world fellow-scientist-wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall, from Iron Man 3), has uploaded onto a computer in the wake of a deadly attack by an anti-technology radical group led by Kate Mara (Netflix’s House of Cards), who, btw, trades in her trademark auburn locks for a badly burned-looking bleach-bond hairdo 20 minutes into the movie.
Prior to his turn of events (the attack, I mean, not Mara’s hair-don’t), which has left him on borrowed time, Will was on the brink of a breakthrough in his research of something called the Technological Singularity, a.k.a. the moment of transcendence in which a computer would, indeed, become sentient and start changing things forever.
Little did he know or expect that he himself would be the catalyst for this step.
Transcendence is an ambitious little movie. It’s stylish, but not like, super-spectacular. Full of big ideas like, Can we really trust a machine that is seemingly inhabited by someone we have trusted? How can anyone – or anything – prove self-awareness? And if machines surpass humans, is man doomed? Paul Bettany is on hand to raise such queries, as Max, a friend of the Casters and a more wary sort of researcher. He was unsure that Will’s mind could make the transition to a computer, and his skepticism is only heightened once the process is over and the uploaded Will asks to be given access to the Internet.
Such unlimited power, he fears, should be of concern Evelyn – but she is too busy wanting to hang onto Will to objectively weigh the pros and cons of moving forward with their little experiment.
Shame then that the movie’s storytelling stumbles along the way. It is interesting to ponder such questions, but it isn’t all that fun to see Depp confined to a box (he is mostly, boldly seen in screens for about two thirds of the movie). Hall and Bettany have the difficult tasks of carrying the bulk of the movie – with fine assists from Morgan Freeman’s government scientist and Cillian Murphy’s FBI agent – and hers is made especially so because she is also trying to remain likable while playing a woman blinded by her commitment, which morphs into a most annoying-looking case of buyer’s remorse.
It isn’t an easy subject the one with which Pfister decided to cut his teeth as a helmer. I kinda wish he’d had more room to spread his wings and soar much, much higher, especially because it sounds like the studio behind him on this one may have tried to clip ’em.
My Rating **